By Belén Carreño and Julien Toyer
MADRID (Reuters) - When Santiago Abascal stood up to address supporters in the conference room of a Barcelona hotel earlier this year, the far-right party leader knew something had changed.
The room was overflowing with 2,000 people. At earlier rallies, he had struggled to attract more than a few dozen.
"When I saw all those people in that room, I immediately understood something different was going on," the 42-year-old told Reuters.
Once dismissed as an outlier in Spanish politics, Abascal is starting to make waves in a country that has until now resisted the populist political currents sweeping Europe.
Pollsters predict that his four-year-old VOX party, which espouses tougher immigration policies and a weaker European Union, will secure its first few parliamentary seats at European elections next year.
VOX could even win one or more seats in Spain's national assembly in a general election due by mid-2020, becoming the first far-right party to enter the Spanish parliament since the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975 - and a potential kingmaker.
Support for the party erupted this year following a secessionist campaign in Catalonia, which prompted a nationalist backlash against Spain's autonomous regions.
But voters who backed the conservatives or socialists over the past 40 years are also seduced by VOX's anti-establishment credentials and tough line on anything from abortion to immigration.
At an event in the city of Valencia earlier this month, more than 1,000 people of all ages and backgrounds packed a restaurant on a Wednesday night to listen to Abascal.
Amparo Bergara, a 70-year-old pensioner who had always voted for the People's Party (PP), said she would vote for VOX at the next election.
"I am worried about our future and the future of my children," she said, complaining about pension cuts. "Spain is in bad shape and somebody needs to fix it."
But so far VOX is not seen as likely to become a national force in Spanish politics.
Abascal is the son of a Basque politician from the PP who for decades faced death threats from separatist group ETA.
Part of VOX's success directly hinges on the image Abascal projects of a strong and energetic leader. He wears sharp suits and a neatly trimmed beard and until recently carried a pistol to protect his father and himself from those threats.
VOX is also relying on public figures who appeal to various types of voters, including a bullfighter, a comedian, a former TV presenter, a prison officer who was kidnapped by ETA, and the father of a teenager who was raped and murdered.
And in a bid to emulate the swift rise of upstart Spanish parties Podemos and Ciudadanos, VOX is betting on the grass roots to get its message out.
In Madrid, dozens of party sympathisers give up their weekends to staff information desks in the streets of targeted neighbourhoods - upscale and working class - to engage voters.
They explain how VOX would break up "the system", its name for Spain's political and financial elite, suspend the political autonomy of the regions, scrap a law that protects women from domestic violence, and better safeguard Spain's borders.
In September alone more than 100 street events were held in Madrid and earlier this month 10,000 people attended a rally to showcase VOX's new political manifesto.
VOX also uses social media a lot, because without parliamentary representation, traditional media has not paid it much attention. VOX is fond of Instagram and says a lot of voters have come to it through Whatsapp. The party's paid-up membership has doubled to around 13,000 in the past four months.
While this remains tiny compared to other national parties, the boost to VOX's finances paves the way for future expansion.
VOX will use the money to open a new headquarters in central Madrid and hire new staff, Abascal said. It also plans to spend more on social media advertising.
"MAKE SPAIN GREAT AGAIN"
Opinion polls show the strategy is bearing fruit.
An October poll predicted VOX would win 1.3 percent of the vote, enough to potentially win one seat or more in the national parliament.
Another survey put the party on 5.1 percent and around 1 million votes, 20 times more than the last general election in 2016.
Most political analysts doubt VOX can grow into a national force because it has failed to attract voters outside the upper middle class.
"The average VOX voter is a far-right voter and the party struggles to convince people who sit elsewhere on the political spectrum," said Jose Fernandez-Albertos, a sociologist from Spain's National Research Council (CSIC).
"My feeling is that the party may not be that successful when it comes to changing the political landscape or winning elections, but it may put on the agenda issues that other parties didn't want to touch on," Fernandez-Albertos said.
Like VOX, most European populist parties now in government or setting the agenda in countries such as Italy, Germany or France first targeted European elections, which are often used by voters to voice discontent.
While they often achieved poor results initially, they used the European Parliament to make headway with less radical voters.
At the last European Parliament elections in 2014, the League scored barely 6 percent of the Italian vote. Now, it has the upper hand in a ruling coalition and the latest opinion polls put it at around 30 percent, overtaking its coalition partner, the 5-Star Movement, as the country’s most popular party.
The Alternative for Germany party won seven seats in the 2014 European election. In 2017, it won seats in 14 of the 16 German state parliaments and 93 seats in the Bundestag, becoming the country’s third-largest party.
Abascal, who is against a federal Europe but would be happy with a union of sovereign states, and would keep Spain in the euro, is also trying to make headway abroad.
He said he had established contact with France's National Rally and Germany's Alternative for Germany, among others, and is an admirer of Italy's Matteo Salvini despite the League's backing for Catalan independence.
He is also in touch with Steve Bannon, who is trying to unite Europe's far-right ahead of the May 2019 European elections, although he said VOX would not become a satellite for the movement run by Donald Trump's former campaign strategist.
"VOX does not respond to any international interest, only to the interest of Spain," Abascal said. "We want to decide the next Spanish government and we believe we may have a shot at it."
(Reporting by Julien Toyer and Belen Carreno; Editing by Giles Elgood)